Jesus and John the Baptist Briefly Mentioned in Josephus

Yosef ben Matityahu, better known by his Latin name Titus Flavius Josephus (“Josephus”), was a Jewish warrior, politician, and documentarian particularly of the early 1st century Jewish wars against the Romans. He came from a wealthy family in Jerusalem. In his twenties he was sent to help negotiate with Roman Emperor Nero for the release of Jewish prisoners in Rome, and upon his return he was made governor of Galilee.

His governorship was fraught with infighting, but Josephus eventually became known for defending the early Jews against the Roman imperial occupation of the Judean lands. Later, however, he lost his popularity among the Jews so he defected and became a Roman citizen. Josephus remained under the patronage of the Flavian dynasty of Emperor Titus (hence why he is often identified with the moniker “Flavius”). During his years in Rome he wrote his central works. The two most prominent surviving writings of Josephus include: The Jewish War (written sometime around 75 AD) and Antiquities of the Jews (written sometime around 94 AD). The surviving Josephus texts come down to us as a result of diligent Christian monks copying and translating the texts. As such, some of the texts have been subject to significant revisionism, in particular with regard to Christian references. The earliest manuscripts we have date to the 11th century (a 12th century manuscript of Antiquities is pictured left).

I recently thumbed through Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews -time and necessity dictates that I cannot read everything. The text is twenty-one volumes long and it is of particular interest to Christians, since it is one of the chief historical sources for certain figures in the New Testament.

At the outset of the book Josephus lists several reasons why a man might sit down to write a history (note this remarkable difference from Herodotus and his reasons). At any rate, Josephus claims his chief two purposes for writing the history are for the general benefit of the public, and presenting facts for the advantage of posterity. His chief audience is that of the Gentiles, particularly the Greeks, so they may better understand the Jews: their laws, practices, habits, and customs.

A 1466 manuscript of Josephus’s Antiquities in which he recounts the stories of Genesis

In the early books of the text, Josephus gives a fascinating recapitulation of the contents of Genesis, which says perhaps more about the perspective of the origins of the cosmos during the first century AD than anything else. I skimmed through these sections which provide a remarkable glimpse of re-telling the Biblical narrative until it blends with then-current historical events.

In Book XVIII Chapter 3, Josephus recounts the governorship of Pontius Pilate who attempted to institute Roman laws in Jerusalem instead of traditionally Jewish laws. His efforts were met with stiff criticism, and many martyrs. Many Jews were unjustly slaughtered by Pilate during this time. Josephus describes Jesus as a “wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man” for he was a performer of wonderful works (i.e. miracles) and he was a teacher. He drew both Jews and Gentiles to him. He was “[the] Christ” because he and his followers claimed to fulfill many prophecies of the ancient Jews and when Jesus was condemned to die on the cross he did not forsake his followers for he appeared to them as alive again on the third day, and this Jewish sect known as Christians was still in existence by Josephus’s time (Josephus seems surprised it was not yet extinct).

This passage has apparently become infamous for its significant Christian interpolation and revisionism (it is generally believed by scholars of the era that this is not the same paragraph Josephus once wrote), but nevertheless at one point it did contain references to Jesus’s prominence in the region as a teacher and founder of a new sect. However, this passage is almost universally rejected for being inauthentic.

John the Baptist is also briefly mentioned in the same book at Chapter 5, in which he is described as a popular figure among the multitude who baptized many with water for a new ‘forgiveness’ doctrine. The power of John the Baptist caused Herod to fear a rebellion, so he ordered John the Baptist executed which caused great disdain among the Jews. Jesus is also mentioned in the penultimate book, Book XX, Chapter 9 in which Jesus’s brother James and some others are betrayed to the Romans by the Sanhedrin of Jewish judges who believed this new Christian sect to be evil and disruptive.

A 1st century Roman bust, perhaps of Josephus

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